Karkloof – A huge field of mountain bikers and trail runners will descend on the fabled Midlands forest and farmland trails for the Sappi Karkloof Classic Trail Festival this weekend, with ideal weather forecast to add to the event's 25th-anniversary celebrations.
From its humble beginnings as a pioneering mountain biking adventure a quarter of a century ago, the event has gone into a hugely popular family occasion, with trail running snowballing in popularity since it was introduced in 2016.
The two-day long festival starts on Saturday morning with the 18km and 9km trail running races, which has attracted some of the top trail runners in the region, eager to test themselves against the famous Karkloof trails and the strong field of seasoned runners.
The men's title race looks wide open, with many of the top ten from last year's race entered but under threat from a larger and stronger field in the 18km race.
Kim Westbrook, who took the women's honours last year and in the process broke into top ten overall in the 18km trail run, is back for another shot at the Karkloof trails. She is equally adept on a mountain bike but seems to have been bitten by the trail running bug.
At midday, it is the turn of the thrill seekers as the dedicated downhill fans take to the STIHL Karkloof Enduro race, contested over four timed sections of downhill trails as part of a twenty-kilometre outing.
There is added hype in enduro circles after the announcement of regular pacesetter Tiaan Odendaal's retirement from competitive racing, leaving the door open for a new name to be etched into the Karkloof record books.
Pietermaritzburg stalwart Tim Bentley is primed to step into Odendaal's shoes, using his fondness for the fast flowing Karkloof trails to work to his advantage.
The entry to the enduro is bigger than expected and includes a number of strong riders keen to try their hand at the adrenaline-laced sister to marathon racing, where consistency and speed are rewarded and momentary lapses prove very costly.
On Sunday over a thousand mountain bikers will converge on the Karkloof Country Club for the hugely popular array of races through the Karkloof plantations and grasslands, starting with the tough 60km Sappi Karkloof Marathon, followed by the 40km aQuellé Half Marathon, then the easier 20km aQuellé Family Ride and rounded off by the 10km aQuellé Kids Ride.
The 60km Sappi Karkloof ultra marathon title is one that is prized by the elite riders, and in recent years has seen the likes of Max Knox, Brendon Davids, Rorke Croeser and Phil Buys on the top step of the podium.
Coming at the end of the tough stage racing season, the distance of the race and tough climbs combine with accumulated fatigue make it a real test, and one that often sorts out the wheat from the chaff.
Hungrier than anyone in the elite batch will be the current SA Under 23 champion Julian Jessop, who after coming close on several occasions, will be eyeing the top step of the podium.
Add to that the class of Tyrone White, who has been a consistently strong performer, but one who has been denied a podium finish by the race on several occasions. The winner of the recent aQuellé Tour Durban 55km cyclocross race, the Ballito Bicycle Co-rider has the distance in his legs to match his hunger to succeed.
Throw in the likes of Howick local Stuart Marais, White's teammate and the current Quattro ROAG Series log leader Andrew Johnson, as well as Jedson Tooms and the racing at the front of the 60km race, will be fast and unforgiving.
In the women's race, the appearance of the name of Bianca Haw on the entry list has thrown the cat amongst the pigeons. The Himeville local is now a seasoned international, matching her massive base fitness with solid technical prowess and a tenacious attitude to her racing.
She often immerses herself in a race against the elite men around her, with her boyfriend Andrew Houston often spotted struggling to stay on her wheel.
She will have a classy field pushing her from the start, including Hayley Smith, Quattro ROAG series leader Andrea de Boer, and Christie Leigh Hearder.
In between that jammed packed Sunday programme of mountain biking action is a third trail run, offering a 9km route for the avid runners.
The event is also supporting the nearby Hawkstone Primary School, and specifically the new Early Childhood Development project that was started there earlier this year.
They are appealing to trail runners and mountain bikers coming to race the event to donate any old educational games, puzzles, reading books and stationery to the school, along with any suitable furniture, carpets, mirrors and, ideally, any old plastic ride-bikes suitable for children aged between three and six years of age who attend the pre-school.
"Supporting the greater Karkloof community has always been an important priority for us," said Sappi's Communications Manager for Forests, Zelda Schwalbach.
"This event attracts a lot of tourism business to the region over this weekend, but it is very important to leave a lasting legacy of this event to the Karkloof community.
"Early Childhood Development (ECD) is extremely important, as it occurs at a phase of a child’s life where important physical, psychological, cognitive and social development should be taking place.
"A child who attends an ECD class has a significantly higher chance of doing well at primary and high school, and ultimately of reaching their full potential, and is the prime reason why we have opted to support ECD here, and in several other communities adjacent to our operations,” she said.
"It's a key step in reducing social inequality, which assists in poverty relief and assists in economic upliftment of communities," she added.
Saturday, 26 May
07h00 - 18km Karkloof Trail Run
07h30 - 9km Karkloof Trail Run
12h00 - STIHL Karkloof Enduro
Sunday, 27 May
07h30 - 60km Sappi Karkloof Marathon
08h30 - 40km aQuellé Half Marathon
09h20 - 9km Karkloof Trail Run
09h30 - 20km aQuellé Family Ride
10h00 - 10km aQuellé Kids Ride
The 2018 Sappi Karkloof Classic Trail Festival takes place at the Karkloof Country Club on Saturday 26 and Sunday 27 May 2018. More info can be found at www.karkloofmtb.co.za
Pictured here: Greg Minaar Cycles' Tim Bentley will be back to try and stake a claim to the vacant STIHL Enduro title at the 2018 Sappi Karkloof Classic Trail Festival on Saturday, 26 May.
Photo credit: Anthony Grote/Gameplan Media